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Secrets of the eucalypt genetic code unlocked

Scientists have sequenced the genetic code of the eucalypt for the first time, providing fresh insights into the Australian icon that is the foundation of many environments and has become the world’s favourite hardwood.

Australian researchers from the Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, University of Tasmania, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and University of the Sunshine Coast collaborated with 30 institutions in nine countries to sequence and analyse the genome of the Flooded Gum (Eucalyptus grandis).

There are over 700 species of Eucalyptus growing across a wide range of environments, from the wet tropics, to alpine shrublands, to the arid interior.

Dr Margaret Byrne from Parks and Wildlife was a co-author on the paper published in Nature.

“The eucalypt genome sequence provides us with the tools to understand how eucalypts have adapted to so many different environments and to investigate the differences between species,” Dr Byrne said.

“It gives us resources to help us understand how to manage eucalypt forest and woodlands under changing climates.”

Dr Carsten Kulheim from the Australian National University agrees.

“The genetic code will help us understand these foundation species of many Australian eco-systems and how these affect other species, from fungi and insects through to marsupials,” he said.

The researchers identified 113 genes responsible for synthesising terpenes, the familiar aromatic essential oils of eucalypts. These oils provide chemical defence against pests, essential oils used in both medicinal and industrial processes, and may be extremely important in understanding feeding preferences of animals, such as the endangered koala. Genome-based research could one day lead to eucalypt oils being used as a base for jet fuel.

Native to Australia, Eucalyptus trees have become the world’s most widely planted hardwood due to their fast growth, adaptability and complex oils.

Dr Antanas Spokevicius of the University of Melbourne said eucalypts were now the hardwood plantation species of choice in many parts of the world for applications like paper-making and bio-energy.

“This resource will provide a huge boost for breeding and biotechnological tree improvement programs and has put eucalypts on the same footing as many other important crop species, whose improvement programs have benefited greatly from a sequenced genome,” he said.

Dr Byrne said efforts to sequence the genome of a eucalypt started over a decade ago.

“The idea was originally discussed in 2004 at the inaugural meeting of the International Eucalypt Genome Network,” she said.

“Since then, the international eucalypt research community has worked together to unlock the genetic secrets of eucalypts.”

The genome sequence consists of 640 million base pairs of DNA, containing over 36,000 genes – almost twice the number of genes in the human genome.

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